Trump on the verge of ‘pro­found dis­grace’

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Nancy Benac and Calvin Wood­ward

WASHINGTON — Don­ald Trump stands on the thresh­old of what two ex­pres­i­dents called the “pro­found dis­grace” of im­peach­ment, a per­ma­nent stain on his legacy.

Of what Alexan­der Hamil­ton set out in the Fed­er­al­ist Pa­pers as the apt rem­edy for “the mis­con­duct of pub­lic men.”

Or what Trump mock­ingly dis­misses as im­peach­ment lite.

The leader who has sliced a scythe through in­sti­tu­tions and thrives in dis­rup­tion stands un­re­pen­tant as a splin­tered na­tion pre­pares to im­peach a pres­i­dent for only the third time in his­tory.

Yet the weight of his­tory is at hand.

So is a cer­tain numb­ness among we the peo­ple as a process once granted the grav­ity of ex­or­cism — an awak­en­ing from a “na­tional night­mare” — plays out for a pub­lic that con­sumes daily provo­ca­tions from this un­usual pres­i­dent and can read only so many tweets in a day.

The U.S. may be wit­ness­ing the triv­i­al­iza­tion of im­peach­ment for charges that are any­thing but triv­ial, said Jef­frey En­gel, a pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian and lead au­thor of a book on im­peach­ments that has found its way into the hands of sen­a­tors as they pre­pare to hold a Jan­uary trial on the House’s ex­pected in­dict­ment.

“Our ex­tra­or­di­nary par­ti­san­ship has triv­i­al­ized it,” he said. “We’re in a re­mark­ably par­ti­san time.”

Look closely, though and you can see that Trump, for all his shrugs and dis­mis­sive taunts, knows he is on the verge of mak­ing a list of pres­i­den­tial in­famy. Im­peach­ment, he said in a let­ter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tues­day protest­ing his in­no­cence, is a “very ugly word.”

Trump is to join Bill Clin­ton, im­peached 21 years ago for ly­ing un­der oath about sex, and An­drew John­son, im­peached 151 years ago for de­fy­ing Congress on Re­con­struc­tion.

Im­peach­ment is not likely to en­gen­der an im­pulse of con­tri­tion for Trump, and it might not even sully his po­lit­i­cal fu­ture.

For ev­ery Amer­i­can who thinks Trump is a con­sti­tu­tional crim­i­nal, an­other Amer­i­can thinks he’s be­ing rail­roaded.

Yet, for all time, there will no eras­ing the ul­ti­mate pres­i­den­tial black mark.

“Make no mis­take, the judg­ment of his­tory does mat­ter,” former Pres­i­dents Ger­ald Ford and Jimmy Carter wrote in an op-ed af­ter the House im­peached Clin­ton in 1998.

Ford and Carter were, in turn, the pres­i­dents who picked up the shat­tered pieces of Richard Nixon’s pres­i­dency in the sear­ing episode by which all pres­i­den­tial cor­rup­tion scandals have been mea­sured since, Water­gate. Nixon only avoided im­peach­ment be­cause he quit on the cusp of it.

In their joint ar­ti­cle, Ford and Carter pleaded for Congress to skip Clin­ton’s trial in the Se­nate be­cause, they said, pro­found dis­grace from the House im­peach­ment would fol­low him for­ever. They wanted him cen­sured in­stead.

The Se­nate went ahead with the trial and ac­quit­ted him, just as it did with John­son and as it is likely to do with Trump.

Clin­ton and Nixon were half­way through their sec­ond terms, ap­proach­ing the twi­light of their pres­i­den­cies when they faced the threat of im­peach­ment.

Trump is stand­ing for re­elec­tion, giv­ing his im­peach­ment the fla­vor of the kind of dra­matic show­down he pro­fesses to rel­ish.

Rag­ing at his ac­cusers, the Democrats, while stonewalli­ng them, Trump says he takes no re­spon­si­bil­ity for all that’s tran­spired and is yet to come.

“Zero, to put it mildly,” he said Tues­day, ac­cus­ing Democrats of “cheap­en­ing” the very idea of im­peach­ment.

To pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian Robert Dal­leck, the con­se­quences are far-reach­ing.

“The mir­a­cle of Amer­ica has been that it’s been able to hold to­gether,” he said. “To sink into this na­tional di­vi­sion that ex­ac­er­bates these dif­fer­ences and ten­sion is to open the way to the col­lapse of Amer­i­can democ­racy, I think.”

Dur­ing the Clin­ton im­peach­ment, con­sti­tu­tional scholar Michael Ger­hardt was the only ex­pert wit­ness called by both par­ties to tes­tify. Democrats sum­moned him again in the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ings in the Trump im­peach­ment.

“The pres­i­dent is re­ally deny­ing the le­git­i­macy of the Con­sti­tu­tion and of in­quiry,” he said in an in­ter­view, trac­ing what he sees as dis­tinc­tive about this pres­i­dent and this im­peach­ment.

The Clin­ton im­peach­ment also took sav­agely par­ti­san turns. Yet Don­ald Ritchie, an of­fi­cial Se­nate his­to­rian then and for many years, said key norms were re­spected as the up­per cham­ber tried and ac­quit­ted the Demo­crat.

Pro­ce­dural rules were ap­proved unan­i­mously, he said, and every­one had a chance to speak. “The Se­nate op­er­ated in very dig­ni­fied, fair and im­par­tial man­ner.”

BREN­DAN SMIALOWSKI/GETTY-AFP

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